Plagued by the highest number of police shootings in the nation, racist Facebook posts from its officers and a viral video of a family terrified by officers while held at gunpoint, Phoenix has introduced broad changes in an effort to “modernize” its troubled department, the mayor said.
Officers are now required to document every time they point weapons at a person, Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, and Police Chief Jeri Williams said at a news conference Monday, and all officers on patrol will wear body cameras.
“This will allow us to have a real idea of how many times our officers are able to successfully de-escalate a situation with the potential of deadly force,” Williams said.
Gallego said the city thinks the changes are “an important step for accountability and transparency.”
The department, which recorded a nationwide high of 44 police shootings in 2018, had pledged earlier in the year to reduce incidents that brought community relations to a boil.
Then, in May, police drew guns on Dravon Ames, his visibly pregnant fiancee, Iesha Harper, and their two young children, then threatened to shoot them over an allegation that one of the children took a doll from a dollar store.
The incident, which was recorded by onlookers, led to wide condemnation, including from Gallego, after a video was circulated in June, and prompted a $10 million lawsuit against the city. That encounter added to already tense relations between officers and the community.
Later in June, a watchdog group released a study that found racist, violent or otherwise problematic memes on the Facebook pages of 97 current and former Phoenix officers.
Firearms Sgt. Vernon Brink told reporters Monday that officers could point their weapons at people for any number of encounters, including felony traffic stops and search warrants.
Video from body cameras can be reviewed after incidents are self-reported. But simply unholstering a firearm or keeping it pointed low do not count as recorded incidents, the Arizona Republic reported. It is not clear what the department plans to do with the data; the department did not return a request for comment.
Additionally, all officers will be required to take an eight-hour course on how to handle citizens with mental health issues, Williams said, after citizens and officers both said it was a considerable yet under-resourced problem.
“We want them to be able to identify when someone is in crisis and having a bad day and how to help them get to the resources they need,” said Erica Chestnut-Ramirez, the director of crisis and trauma healing services at La Frontera Arizona, a mental health resource center that will assist the department with training.
The changes are a result of a $150,000 study from the National Police Foundation commissioned by the city that concluded that the increase in shooting incidents was a “statistical yet tragic anomaly,” saying officers had faced more assaults by suspects with guns than in past years.
That did not ward off angry citizens after the viral police encounter. In June, hundreds crammed into a town hall meeting to chastise Williams and tell stories of frustration, anger and, on a few occasions, of a family member killed or wounded by police.
The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.